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In praise of Jackie Robinson West, Little League's greatest cheaters

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The youth baseball team from the south side of Chicago was exposed for cheating, but the scandal can't take away the memories.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Wednesday was unforgettable in Chicago for all the wrong reasons. The city woke up to the news that Jackie Robinson West had been stripped of its Little Little World Series title, then spent the rest of the day drowning in an unbearable noise chamber of hot takes on morality, race, the sanctity of youth sports and the arbitrary lines of residential boundaries.

Chicago was eating itself on many of the same issues that had chewed away at the city for a generation, only now these problems were repackaged and projected onto the downfall of the feel good story of the summer. No matter which side of the debate you were on, it felt like the type of news that left everyone feeling defeated one way or another.

It's probably hard to understand why this is so emotional if you weren't around Chicago in July and August. You needed to see the way people came together on State Street outside of Chicago Theater to watch Jackie Robinson West's final game, just one of many watch parties around the city. You had to see the yellow t-shirts, the balloons, the dancing, the general happiness this team provided.

At a certain point, Jackie Robinson West's run in the Little League World Series stopped being a sports story and started to feel like a cultural event. The players were too young to know anything about Chicago's ugly history of racism and segregation, but the context was essential to their triumph. When they returned to the city, the team was treated like conquering heroes. It's what makes Wednesday's news and the suffocating reaction to it all the more disheartening.

How did Jackie Robinson West cheat, exactly? They pulled a few kids from neighboring areas like South Holland and Dolton and fudged a boundary map to make it happen.

The only reason they were busted was because a man Chris Janes ratted them out. Janes was the president of the Little League team from nearby Evergreen Park, a team Jackie Robinson West beat 43-2 in the sectionals. He complained to Little League International which kickstarted an investigation by reporter Mark Konkol at DNA Info. When everything came to light, it became apparent that Jackie Robinson West barely even tried to cover this up.

All of it was so perfect. The history of Chicago politics is lying and cheating. The history of baseball is lying and cheating. In a sense, Jackie Robinson West represented their city and their sport better than anyone could have imagined.

jr

(Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports)

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Because of the way Jackie Robinson West resonated with Chicago, and because of the way the city rallied behind the team, the downfall was swift and painful. You couldn't open the Internet or turn on the radio without hearing an overly sanctimonious local media tell why this was wrong and why everyone involved with Jackie Robinson West should feel ashamed.

In the Chicago Tribune, you got headlines like this:

champs

Not champions. It's repeated five times in that column. A sample:

You're not champions, guys. You played great, but you're not champions.

But if you take from this the knowledge that nobody wins by cheating, if you remember this rotten feeling for the rest of your lives and dedicate yourselves to playing the game right, or coaching the game right, or encouraging other kids to play the game right, then you'll wind up with something far greater than a championship.

You'll wind up with integrity. And nothing beats that.

David Haugh also sent a similar message in the Tribune. The story of Jackie Robinson West was now a story of shame:

Shame on everybody.

Shame on any adult who let down all those blameless children...

Shame on the JRW coaches who looked the other way.

Shame on all of us who swallowed the tale bait hook, line and sinker because of the innocence and excellence it represented...

And shame on me for not feeling more outrage over the feel-good story....

There are many ways to look at this story, but if you're an adult who really feels betrayed by Jackie Robinson West, I'd like to see the snowglobe you're living in.

This is the sort of thing that happens all the time in youth sports. Sometimes you get caught, sometimes you don't. Last year, I watched two of the best freshmen in college basketball -- Kansas' Cliff Alexander and Duke's Jahlil Okafor -- battle for the city championship in a thrilling four overtime game. Days later, it came out that Alexander's victorious Curie squad was using academically ineligible players and was forced to vacate all of their wins.

A few months after that, the Chicago Sun-Times reported every team in the city would have been ineligible by same rarely enforced standards Curie was held to. Curie was busted only because they were too good.

In the hierarchy of ways you can cheat in sports, Jackie Robinson West could have done much worse. They weren't using older players. They weren't pulling kids from Chicago's wealthy suburbs. There was no enhanced equipment or, god forbid, drug use.

The father of slugger Trey Hondras, one of the kids pulled from out of area, tried to explain it:

"If any black kid wants to play baseball they use Jackie Robinson West because it has been around and it’s not going anywhere. It’s like a tradition if you are from the city, whether you move out or not," he said.

"The biggest issue with South Holland [Little League] was they never saw the bigger picture of getting kids to develop to make a push for a district title to go Downstate. It was too many guys playing daddy ball, dragging coaches' kids [on the All-Star team] who are not good enough," he said.

To the moral arbiters of the city, though, there was no room for context. It didn't matter that one of the players from Jackie Robinson West literally returned from the tournament to find out he was homeless. It didn't matter that the teams Jackie Robinson West defeated along the way had much more substantial advantages that come with living anywhere other than the south side of Chicago. Cheating is cheating, and Jackie Robinson West was a fraud.

There's not much of an argument against it. Jackie Robinson West did cheat. It was probably the best cheating any of us will ever see.

Without cheating, these 13 black boys from some of the worst parts of Chicago never would have become the city's biggest celebrities. They never would have had a ticker tape parade, never would have been honored by every professional team in the city, never would have had TV cameras in their face as they got off the airplane from Williamsport. They never would have met President Obama and never would have brought some positive publicity to a part of the city that only appears on the news when someone is killed.

Five years from now, no one is going to remember the names of the adults who turned one of the most positive sports stories of 2014 into a lesson on morality. If we're lucky, maybe some people actually will remember the way these kids brought a segregated city together for a few weeks in the summer. Cheaters aren't supposed to win, but these kids did. A few angry talk show hosts and outraged columnists can't take that away from them.